The Tipping Point, the transformational book by Malcolm Gladwell from 2000, describes “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” The Mona Lisa is a famous painting by Italian artist Leonardo Da Vinci.
Notwithstanding the Mona Lisa’s innate quality, the serendipitous string of events that led to its tipping point – being considered ‘the greatest work of art ever’ – are fascinating. An article by Ian Leslie on More Intelligent Life discusses this and how a work of art comes to be considered great.
One aspect is the ‘mere-exposure effect’. Psychologist James Cutting studied whether this plays a role in which paintings achieve cultural status. His experiments, which were based around exposing people to images, were telling. Familiarity, even unconscious familiarity (i.e. flashing images that people didn’t notice), bred liking.
The other aspect is ‘cumulative advantage,’ a term used by sociologist Duncan Watts, who studied the history of the Mona Lisa. I’ll provide a potted summary here. For most of its life, the Mona Lisa languished in relative obscurity. It was in the Louvre, but it wasn’t in a prime spot. Then it was stolen and Parisians were aghast. They queued to look at the gap where it once hung.
Two years later, it turned up at a market in Florence. The Italians hailed the thief, an Italian carpenter, for trying to return the painting home. The French public was electrified. Newspapers around the world told the story and reproduced the painting in print. Global fame. Others used it to their own advantage – French-American painter Marcel Duchamp reproduced the Mona Lisa with a beard and moustache – reinforcing its status as an icon.
Leslie makes two simple points to renew a little faith. First, a work needs a certain quality to be eligible to be swept to the top of the pile – the Mona Lisa wasn’t in the Louvre by accident. Second, some stuff is simply better than other stuff. Also, the mere-exposure effect doesn’t always work – think of the last time you didn’t like something, but had to look at it on a regular basis. Chances are you grew to like it less, not more.
Leslie’s final remark suggests that we should take the greats with a grain of salt. “We should always be a little sceptical of greatness…we should always look in the next room… we need to see, and read, as much as we can. The more exposed we’re to the good and the bad, the better we are at telling the difference. The eclecticists have it.”